The career of a firefighter is both rewarding and fulfilling. This career choice was not even an option for me when I was selecting my profession. I was not aware that women could be firefighters or if any women even worked in that field. Teaching is where my passion was and that is the career I had pursued and completed.
Born and raised in Chicago Heights, Illinois with twelve brothers and sisters, raised in a three bedroom home, with one full bathroom was a great experience. Along with that we were brought up working in our Italian grocery store, which has been in operation for the past 65 years. All days off from school were spent working in the store. Little did I know, this lifestyle taught me many skills that would help to be successful in the Fire Service; sharing the housework, teamwork, no fighting, getting along, being prepared, working hard, treating the customer with respect, and fast eating (before all the food was gone).
I decided in third grade that I wanted to be a teacher. One day the teacher asked a question, I knew the answer and raised my hand. It must have been an easy question because so many kids had their hands up. I thought how lucky the teacher was because she got to pick who was going to answer the question. At that moment I decided that I wanted ‘to pick’ the student who had their hand up because I knew that student would be so happy once they were selected. So considering that is what drew me to the teaching career…it’s a stretch to compare it to the career of firefighting. Instead of me getting to call on someone to give the answer, as firefighters we are the ones who are called upon every day to answer the public’s questions and their needs, which is even more fulfilling.
My husband is Mike Cameli, who is a Tempe firefighter, and we have 5 daughters and 2 granddaughters. None of which, at this time, want to pursue the career of firefighting, but that may change.
My brother, Gil Damiani, who was also on the Mesa Fire Department, continued telling me what a great job this would be. He was filling me in on all that he does each shift. This is how I first learned of firefighting as a career option for women.
I was hired in 1983 with another female by the name of Georganne (Gigi) White. Gigi and I were the first two women hired by the Mesa Fire Department. This was new not only for the firefighters, but for their spouses, and for the community as well. Spouses were not comfortable with their husbands working 24 hours with a female. After hearing this, I made it a point to get to know the families of the firefighters that I had the opportunity to work with. This helped to allay some of their concern. When Gigi and I started we were both told in the academy that we had to cut our hair to be within the hair code, which was 1/2 ” over the ears and could not be 1″ past the collar. At that time I had hair down to the middle of my back, but I had no problem cutting it. If that was the rule then that is what I had to do. I was totally committed to the profession and everything that came with it.
As I promoted through the ranks of Firefighter, Engineer, Captain, Battalion Chief, and Assistant Chief each rank brought on new challenges that helped me to grow. Throughout my career there were comments made by the public that I often found very interesting. Even though there were many, there were two comments that I found the most amusing.
As a Deputy Chief, I was giving a talk to a group of elderly men early one morning about what was going on in the Fire Department. I was in uniform, which has our name and rank on our shirt. After my presentation there were many questions and answers. Many of the questions being asked were very good ones about the progress of the department, what we were doing regarding the budget situation, and then one gentlemen raised his hand and said, “Is that your shirt?” When I responded that it was. He said, “Are you a Deputy Chief?” (the underlying message was…girls can’t be Chiefs!) The rest of the group got very quiet and that’s when I smiled and said, “You don’t think I borrowed someone else’s shirt to give this talk do you?” As he sat there he was still in total disbelief.
The second comment occurred in 2010 (I was on the job 27 years) when I was coming back from a meeting I stopped to get gas. I was in uniform fueling up at the gas station when a man at the pump next to me asked, “Are you Mary?” I answered that I was, introduced myself, and shook his hand. He said, “You took my job from me.” “What do you mean?” I asked. He said in 1983 he tested for the job of firefighter and they hired me and another girl instead of him and another man. I asked him if he tested again and he said he tested about 7 times after that. I asked him, “Who took your job those times?” to which he had no response. So you never quite know what people are thinking. It is important to always treat people with respect because we cannot control what others say and do, but surely have control of how we react.
Women have been working this career for 30 years here in the valley and have been doing a great job. I am certain those who had to break ground before us surely have some interesting stories to tell. We appreciate all that they had to do to get us to where we are today. It is a great profession that is very fulfilling. I wouldn’t change my career choice for anything. I loved teaching, but I have to say I am very thankful for the career that I have been blessed with. This is a career that truly makes a difference in people’s lives. Every day we learn something new and it is our choice what we do with the information…we can make it a learning experience, a bitter experience, or a humorous one. I know that one day, before I give a talk to a group, I will look around to see just whose shirt I want to borrow…just to keep things interesting! ~Mary Cameli, hired July 25, 1983